Luke DeCock

Why the ACC's tournament takeover in Omaha is bad financial news for the conference

How do Duke and Syracuse match up for their NCAA Sweet 16 game?

Find out how the Duke Blue Devils and the Syracuse Orangemen match up as they battle in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Sweet 16.
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Find out how the Duke Blue Devils and the Syracuse Orangemen match up as they battle in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Sweet 16.

Somehow we have arrived at this strange confluence of bracketing and geography, Greensboro on the Missouri River. While zero ACC teams compete in Atlanta this weekend, right in the instep of the fabled footprint, three have somehow arrived in Omaha to compete for one spot in the Final Four, and will have to get past top-seeded Kansas, yet again just across the border from home, to do it.

Other than the presence of Syracuse in the semifinals, this feels like some far-flung ACC tournament in the future, when Creighton has added football and become the league's 22nd member and the ghost of Warren Buffett paid to play the thing in Nebraska.

There's Duke and Syracuse on one side, looking curiously at each other's 2-3 zones like two people who wore the same outfit to a wedding, and there's Clemson and Kansas on the other, the Tigers playing as well as anyone in the entire tournament but still going up against the mysterious home-court advantage Kansas seems to have every year, even more than the Big Four.

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There's nothing unusual about a bunch of ACC teams being in Omaha at the same time, just that the games are usually overrun with sacrifice bunts and pitching changes instead of slam dunks and zone defenses. The two times the ACC did send three teams to the College World Series, in 2006 and 2008, games took six hours to play because of the ping-pong bats and cozy fences of old Rosenblatt Stadium. (The ACC didn't win the CWS in either of those years, it should probably be noted.)

While it's good news for the ACC that four teams advanced to the Sweet 16, as many as any other conference – Florida State, which plays Gonzaga in Los Angeles on Thursday, is the other – it's actually bad financial news for the conference. The ACC gets roughly $1.6 million for every game a conference team plays in the tournament up to the title game; having the four teams spread out among four different regionals would maximize the ACC's monetary gain.

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Every game played in the tournament earns a conference a “unit,” which is paid out over the next six seasons. The payout isn't determined until it is paid, so there's some estimation involved, but they continue to increase as the money flows in from the NCAA's megadeal with CBS and Turner. This year's units, paid out for performance over the previous six years, are worth $273,000 each. Units earned this year are guaranteed to be worth at least that much, so a minimum of $1.6 million over their six-year lifespan.

So far, the ACC has collected 19 of the $1.6 million units, and will get either one or two more out of the Omaha regional, plus perhaps another if an ACC team advances to San Antonio. Florida State could bring in as many as three more units. So the ACC is capped at 25 units, will get a minimum of 20 units and is probably more likely to fall into the 21-22 range, something like $35 million paid out over the next six years. Whereas if all four teams were in different regionals, the ACC could have gotten to 31 with an all-ACC Final Four. Unlikely, but possible – and with an extra $15 million bonus.

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The ACC saw both sides of this over the past two seasons. The record-setting tournament performance in 2016 – the ACC went 12-1 through the first two rounds, with four teams in the Elite 8 and two in the Final Four – was worth 25 units, or somewhere in excess of $35 million at that season's rates. A year later, when only North Carolina made it out of the first weekend, the ACC ended up with 19, worth about $30 million. And that was with an ACC team winning the national title.

There's still money to be made, just not as much as there would be if there had been an ACC team in Omaha and an ACC team in Atlanta and an ACC team in Los Angeles and an ACC team in Boston. The bracket was set up to deliver ACC teams to the first three, and if Syracuse made it to Omaha then there's no reason why Virginia Tech couldn't have made it four-for-four in Boston. But that's not how it worked out, with Virginia and North Carolina failing to make it out of Charlotte and other, lower-seeded schools picking up the slack.

So the ACC will take over Omaha this weekend on the court while the typical locust swarm of Kansas fans takes over the building. The footprint gets a little bigger, for a few days, and the ACC has a chance to leave an impression.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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